Published in 1847 as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography
Smith, Elder & Co. of London
Published a year later by Harper Brothers of New York
One of the book clubs I belong to read Jane Eyre in February because, well, it’s “love month.” However, once we all read the book and got together to talk about it, we barely mentioned the “love” angle. There were so many themes to talk about in Jane Eyre that we had one of our best ninety-minute discussions ever. In case you have forgotten the story-line or you are one of the two remaining women in the world who hasn’t read the book, here’s the basic plot:
When we first meet her, Jane Eyre is an orphaned girl of about ten living in England in the mid-nineteenth century. She is living with the widow and three children of her maternal uncle. None of these people care much for Jane and, in fact, the children are allowed to treat her in an abusive manner. There is one nanny who is somewhat nice to her, though there seems little love and affection.
Jane is sent away to a charity style boarding school. The school is managed by a man who believes its necessary to punish the poor. There is very little food, clothing, heat in the winter, and extremely tough punishments. Eventually, there are some reforms and Jane survives and goes on to become a teacher.
Jane longs to see some of the “outside world” so she takes a position as a governess to the ward of a wealthy man, Mr. Rochester. And, Mr. Rochester is the one who makes Jane’s heart come to life. There is lots of romantic tension – lots of does he or doesn’t he return her love.
Spoiler Alert: At this point you may want to skip down a paragraph as here is where I share some shocking news: they are both in love! Yes, that was sarcasm. This novel is the template for most romance novels that have followed. In this story, however, Mr. Rochester already has a secret wife. (She’s the crazy woman locked up in the attic.) When Mr. Rochester asks Jane to marry him, he chooses not to reveal that secret. But Jane will find out, just in time. Jane runs away from Mr. Rochester and there’s another whole section of the book about the next phase of Jane’s life.
This classic story was read by all but one member of our club in their teens or early twenties. For most of us this second reading came forty or more years later. This time around our experience was different.
The first time I read this story I was a freshman in college and it was all about the romance. I saw it then as a beautifully dramatic love story. I’ve carried that memory with me. This time the romance was secondary for me and the other members, including the one member who read it for the first time in February.
Our discussion of the book included the numerous characters, the plot and the time period of the novel. And then, as is our habit, the majority of our discussion focused on the issues in the book. We all thought it strange that we hadn’t paid attention to these things the first time around, even though back in the early 1960s we were involved in a variety of social/political issues. It must have been all about the romance.
The issues included in Jane Eyre gave us a chance to look at “then and now.” Take a look at a few and you’ll see what I mean:
- the treatment of orphaned children – who cared for them, how were they treated?
- the education of poor or lower class children
- attitudes toward the poor
- the focus of religion and morals in the lives of ordinary people (all classes)
- the treatment of the mentally ill
- the treatment of women (an on-going discussion in our group)
Believe it or not, but Jane Eyre gave us one of the best book club meetings we’ve had. We talked about the book for a solid ninety minutes. There were even side discussions afterward. It was a good review of how times have changed from today compared to the mid-nineteenth century. It also served as a review for members in a personal way – how much have we changed between today and when we first read this book. Overall, I/we recommend Jane Eyre as a great novel for book clubs.
Reading this book qualifies for the following challenges:
- Classic Club
- Women Authors
- Lucky 14
- # of books read